Sunday, October 19, 2008

Any tears for the Aam Aadmi?

Any tears for the Aam Aadmi?
19 Oct 2008, 0001 hrs IST, Neelam Raaj, TNN

In Belwa, a hamlet in Uttar Pradesh's Varanasi district, it's almost noon by the time the women get around to cooking but the meal is ready in a jiffy. A few rotis and a bowl of salt water. Dip, dip, dip...and the hungry children gulp down their first - and last - meal of the day.

''By evening, they will be crying again but a slap or two will quieten them down,'' says Laxmina, wife of a brick kiln worker and mother of three. Her face is deadpan but her voice betrays her desperation. These months are the worst in Belwa. With the brick kilns closed from July to October, the hamlet's Musahars, the bottom rung in India's caste system, struggle to survive. And it is children who are the most vulnerable. A health check in Belwa by People's Vigilance Council for Human Rights, a n organisation that works in the area, found that more than 80% of its children were malnourished.

''In the past year, food prices have gone up sharply but incomes haven't. It is impossible for children to be healthy on a diet of rotis with no milk or vegetables,'' says Lenin Raghuvanshi, a PVCHR activist. But bloated stomachs and wasted limbs are a reality not just in this corner of eastern UP. Consider these statistics:

Four in every 10 Indian children are malnourished, says a UN report.

India ranks a lowly 66 out of 88 countries in the Global Hunger Index 2008. The report says India has more hungry people - more than 200 million - than any other country in the world.

One-third of the world's poor live in India, according to the latest poverty estimates from the World Bank. Based on its new threshold of poverty - $1.25 a day - the number of India's poor people has actually gone up from 421 million in 1981 to 456 million in 2005

India ranks 128 out of 177 countries in the UN's Human Development Index. The index goes beyond GDP and calculates human development by taking into account life expectancy, literacy and standard of living.

So did these alarming numbers cease to matter when placed alongside more upbeat GDP numbers? Was the gloom forgotten - perhaps consciously - in the rah-rah story of India's economic boom? Enter Aravind Adiga's story of a rickshawallah's move from the "darkness" of rural india to the "light" of urban Gurgaon to remind us of the harsh facts behind the fiction. Amid the call centres, the 360,000,004 gods, the shopping malls and the crippling traffic jams, Adiga's protagonist encounters modern India. ''The cars of the rich go like dark eggs down the roads of Delhi. Every now and then an egg will crack open and a woman's hand, dazzling with gold bangles, stretches out of an open window, flings an empty mineral water bottle onto the road and then the window goes up, and the egg is resealed.''

So tightly that the bleaker realities stay out. Inequality and injustice have always been around us, points out human rights activist Harsh Mander. ''But what makes these times that we live in, distinct, is that it does not seem even to cause outrage any longer,'' he says. ''It does not worry us that half our children are still malnourished, or that 200 million people sleep hungry each night; that access to quality schooling still depends on the wealth and social standing of the family into which one is born; that thousands of children sleep in bitter winter cold on dirty pavements under the open sky; that an illness in the household can mean permanent pauperisation of the entire family; that women work the hardest but are paid the least; and that Dalits and minorities fear for not just the consequences of deprivation but also of organised hate. We seem to have collectively resolved to exile impoverished people even from our conscience and consciousness,'' he says.

In contrast, the lavish lifestyles of the rich are celebrated. ''Little wonder that social discontent has been rising. In fact, the only thing to be surprised about is that there is very little violence around us,'' says Satish Deshpande, professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics.

Will it always stay like that? ''It's been 60 years since Independence and the impatience is rising,'' points out Deshpande. After all, reading about India's chronic development deficiencies is one thing, living with them entirely another.

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